Matt LaFleur rode a rising tide of spread offense awareness to go from Falcons quarterbacks coach to Packers head coach in just three years. The 39-year-old earned high marks for rehabbing the Rams working under Sean McVay, and while a 2018 spent as Tennessee Titans offensive coordinator didn’t yield many on-field accolades, it was still enough to convince Green Bay he was the man who could turn a proud franchise’s flagging fortunes around.
But through two games, his fresh start for Aaron Rodgers and the Packers’ offense looks very familiar.
Barring a handful of big plays, LaFleur has trended more closely to Tennessee’s staid offense than the high-powered fireworks championed by McVay. Green Bay’s 4.3 yards per play is the third-lowest mark in the league, beating out only the lowly Jets and Dolphins — one team that’s already onto its third starting quarterback of the season and another that’s devolved into a black hole of despair. While some of those struggles can be attributed to a pair of tough defensive matchups to start the season, it’s clear these Packers aren’t yet the offensive juggernaut they were hoping to be after making a major coaching change.
What are the Packers doing right, and is it sustainable?
LaFleur’s spread offense works in fits and starts with a legendary quarterback like Rodgers behind center and a deep cast of solid young wideouts. The rookie coach’s ability to use every yard of the field has created the single-coverage opportunities his QB understands how to exploit. That was evident in the season opener when Rodgers leveled up to find Marquez Valdes-Scantling for a big gain against Chicago.
oooooh Geronimo Allison got UP for this one pic.twitter.com/cHwQJzh2Ji— Christian D'Andrea (@TrainIsland) September 15, 2019
There’s nothing complicated about either of these plays, which are arguably the two most meaningful throws of Rodgers’ 2019 to date. The Valdes-Scantling completion was a function of sending two receivers deep while leaving three targets to spread the field with short routes near or behind the line of scrimmage. The most notable of these is top target Davante Adams, who faked an end-around before splitting to his left for a safety valve screen. The over-the-top safety, backup Deon Bush, got caught watching and stuck in no-man’s land:
This allowed the second-year wideout to get inside leverage in single coverage. Seconds later, he’d be responsible for 47 yards — Green Bay’s biggest gain of the season so far.
One week later, Allison faked an out route before leaning back inside on his touchdown catch, creating space back toward the goal post for Rodgers to exploit. The Vikings should have had safety help there to shut that window. Instead Jake Kumerow, working in from the sideline, somehow drew three defenders to his short crossing route — including linebacker Eric Kendricks.
Kendricks’ commitment to that short route meant safety Anthony Harris had to pick up Jimmy Graham, who is an even bigger red zone threat than Allison. Rodgers had his pick of single coverage in the end zone from 12 yards out, and Allison — covered by rookie corner Nate Meadors — was his man.
The good news is these lineups are confusing defenses and creating gaps. They’re just not especially complex, which is why Green Bay has had trouble stringing these kinds of plays together over the course of a full game. If linebackers and safeties don’t wind up covering the wrong guy, the opportunity isn’t there, forcing Rodgers into checkdown situations. Both the Bears and Vikings caught wise to this, limiting the Packers’ big plays and holding them to only three second half points through two games.
Here, LaFleur tried to spread the field by motioning fullback Dan Vitale out of the backfield and balancing off two deep routes with two intermediate ones. Minnesota didn’t bite, even with a five-man pass rush. This left no opportunities for Rodgers as his pocket disintegrated.
Green Bay can still make that work. The Packers have receivers capable of beating coverage with clean routes and a quarterback capable of withstanding and/or escaping a pass rush to get the ball to them:
The issue is that this doesn’t leave Green Bay looking all that different than it did under former coach Mike McCarthy. Rodgers may be reading a new playlist off his wristband in the huddle, but his execution on the field shares a whole bunch of similarities with his past decade in green and gold. That was a scheme Rodgers grew more and more frustrated with as time went on and ultimately pushed the Packers out of the playoffs and McCarthy out of Wisconsin.
This is all familiar in Green Bay
Rodgers is throwing the ball less in 2019 than 2018, which is understandable given the fact his team has led for basically seven of its eight quarters of football so far. He’s also getting sacked more, thanks to an uncharacteristically bad start to the season from All-Pro left tackle David Bakhtiari (two blown blocks, two holding penalties so far).
Despite the added pressure that’s driven his sack rate from 7.6 percent to 9.9, Rodgers is still able to use his athleticism to buy time; his 3.1 seconds per pass average is the second-highest mark in the league. But he’s not using that time to allow plays to develop downfield. Per Sports Information Systems, his average throw only covers 7.6 yards through the air, down from 8.1 in 2018 and roughly in line with the 7.8 figure he averaged over the last four years of the McCarthy era.
LaFleur was brought in as a tool to open up a stale offense that had turned an aging MVP into a merely good quarterback. Through two weeks, he’s shown flashes of the strategic skill that made him a hot commodity on the coaching market, but he has yet to fundamentally change the Packers’ offense for the better in a meaningful, consistent way.
He rode into town with new wave coaching credentials in a league that’s beginning to wise up to the trends that made the Rams and Chiefs look so unbeatable. And while he came to Wisconsin as someone who can embrace the air raid-ish qualities that have taken over the NFL, he also came in with a reputation for leaving his quarterbacks vulnerable; in his lone season calling plays in Nashville, Titans quarterbacks were sacked on nearly 10 percent of their dropbacks.
Green Bay’s upgraded defense makes that less of a concern. Winning helps mask the team’s relative, uh, boringness. It also gives him some more runway to design the schemes needed to confuse secondaries and open the gaps players like Adams, Valdes-Scantling, and Allison have exploited to start the season.
The Packers should get better against softer defenses — the Bears and Vikings ranked second and fourth, respectively, in defensive efficiency last season — but they’ll also face much better offenses than ones led by Mitchell Trubisky and Kirk Cousins. At some point, Rodgers is going to have to dig deep into his reserve of amazing plays to outshoot another team in the race to the postseason.
It’s LaFleur’s job to build the windows Rodgers can force open with his arm. So far, he’s shown he’s still got work to do.